Friday, October 18, 2013

Lawless - Could've (Should've) Been Great

Shia LeBeouf as Jack Bondurant in Lawless 
One of the movies of 2012 that sort of peaked my interest was the film Lawless. Well, let me clear...the film peaked my interest when it was called The Wettest County in The World. The film, based on the book The Wettest County in the World by Matthew Bondurant.

The book, histroical fiction is written by Bondurant based on stories and photographs of his grandfather and great uncle in Franklin County, Virginia during prohibition.

When I read the book I enjoyed it and wrote my observations, and in many ways found myself having some similar reactions to the movie. In a way, the book was too smart, written with too many characters that it was often a little challenging to connect to the plot lines that were being established.

Yet the film should have succeeded. It could have overcome these challenges because the characters might be able to keep track of in film, the narrative could be reconstructed to be chronological instead of written in a mixed up order from different perspectives as it was done in the book.

And yet, while the film dealt with the challenges of some of the complexity created by teh book it made a fetal mistake - it never made an effort to give the viewer a reason to connect to the story being told in the film.

The film was under such talented craftsmen (notably director John Hillcoat, screenwriter/musician Nick Cave, and editor Dylan Tichenor), and the casting was near perfect. Every character was perfectly cast, couldn't imagine it being done better (A list cast who fit the characters perfectly, including Tom Hardy, Guy Pearce, Jessica Chastain, Shai LeBeouf, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska and Gary Oldman).

Yet,what I thought made the book work was the magic of the historical setting and the recreation of something very real and personal to the author. This is something that the film would have of course had a hard time capitalizing on. Similarly, the book created intrigue with it's unique back and forth through time, when the movie logically decided to go with a less scattered narrative.

All the same, the film never told you why you cared. Who were you cheering for, and why? What keeps you engaged and watching? What will create resolution? I can appreciate the effort not to create a formula driven plot narrative, but the film did very little to catch the viewer overall into any sort of character or pplot driven goal/challenge.

In fact, I have this feeling that many people after watching the film would identify different characters as the main character. This same challenge is in the book as well, but in the book the first person narrative shifts allow you to read the story following many characters. In the film, they would have benefited from a greater focus on a single character, allowing some of the well crafted narrative to slip into the background.

So often you watch film adaptations of books and think "but they forgot this main part" or "character arch" and in Lawless you see exactly why book-to-film adaptions leave out some details and character arches. Because here, they are all put into the film, and less would have probably been more.

I have a feeling we will see more collaborations of John Hillcoat and Nick Cave. This was there third feature length film collaboration. The previous where Ghost...of the Civil Dead (1988), and The Proposition (2005). And while I think there work is not dismal it has unfound potential, and in the case of Lawless so much of the problem was on creating a connection between the film and the audience. It wasn't technicality that was missing, but rather emotion. I want this team to try again, because I think they could real make something amazing if they can take all their technical skill and artistry and find a way to speak to their audience. I trully believe Lawless could have (and should have) been great. But instead it missed the mark.